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News / Clark County News

Vancouver preps for more snow; using salt solution on roadways has benefits, environmental drawbacks

City workers strive to meet drivers’ needs while minimizing impacts

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 11, 2024, 6:05am
3 Photos
Drivers in Salmon Creek navigate soggy streets while passing a light blanket of snow Wednesday morning. Southwest Washington saw varied snowfall from barely more than a trace in lowland Vancouver to accumulations in areas at higher elevation in Cowlitz County.
Drivers in Salmon Creek navigate soggy streets while passing a light blanket of snow Wednesday morning. Southwest Washington saw varied snowfall from barely more than a trace in lowland Vancouver to accumulations in areas at higher elevation in Cowlitz County. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With freezing temperatures predicted again this weekend, municipal vehicles are ready to coat streets with a homemade concoction of water and sodium chloride to help keep drivers safe.

This salt blend lowers water’s freezing point and prevents ice from forming, which is why cities choose to apply it before conditions become slippery. The mixture is inexpensive and accessible, considering it’s made at Vancouver’s operations center for countywide use.

But, despite the benefits, heavy salt use has drawbacks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that salting can contaminate water, increase soil erosion and corrode property — whether it’s a vehicle or a bridge. De-icing salts can kill plants by dehydrating them and are toxic to aquatic species.

For the greater Clark County area, public works managers aren’t worried.

“Those concerns are things we have considered over the years,” said Ryan Miles, Vancouver street operations program manager. “But there are trade-offs.”

Miles said the city’s use of salt is necessary to keep people safe. Even though salting could potentially corrode infrastructure or wash into water bodies, it has a minimal impact on the environment, he said. That’s because the region’s mild winter weather doesn’t require application of the amounts typical in the Midwest or East Coast — places hit hard by snow and ice. Here, salt might be applied for a few days, not for weeks and months like in harsher climates.

When needed, only one wheelbarrow worth of salt, or 100 pounds, is applied per mile. Miles said this is an infinitesimal amount and better than other alternatives.

Vancouver began using sodium chloride at least a decade ago after considering the region’s weather history and research done by the Washington State Department of Transportation and Washington State University, Miles said. Gravel and sand are only used as a last resort because it isn’t as effective as salt, requires rounds of cleanup and can clog stormwater drains.

“Regardless of whatever we use, we’re trying to meet people’s needs while minimizing impacts,” Miles said.

Snow in the forecast

Vancouver and most lowland areas in Clark County don’t see more than a light dusting of snow.

Seasonal averages linger at 0.9 inches of snow in December and 3.7 inches in January, according to Jon Liu, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Portland.

However, the region has seen some extremes. On Dec. 10, 1919, the National Weather Service recorded 15.6 inches of snow falling in Vancouver, the most the city has ever received on one day in recorded history. Decades later, in mid-January 1980, the city was blanketed with 27 inches of snow over two days.

Rain and snow will likely fall Friday and Saturday as temperatures drop possibly into the teens, Liu said.

Check The Columbian’s live traffic map for road conditions. WSDOT provides the latest on statewide highways at wsdot.com/travel/real-time.

Street management updates can be found online at Clark County Public Works, clark.wa.gov/public-works, and Vancouver Public Works, cityofvancouver.us/government/department/public-works/severe-weather-response.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer